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Memorable Manitobans: Harry Gutkin (1916-2004)

Graphic artist, historian.

An all-embracing sense of social responsibility and a drive for perfection marked the long, multi-faceted career of Harry Gutkin. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and became a published magazine illustrator and a political cartoonist before he was 20. Then, having been rejected for military service in the Second World War, he turned his energy in partnership with David Simkin to the founding of Contemporary Publishers, which issued a number of paperbacks on social subjects. His skill in the graphic arts and his talent for management led in 1948 to the founding of the advertising art and photography firm of Phillips-Gutkin and Associates, in partnership with John Phillips. This intensely creative young company won a number of awards, serving both national and international clients; among these, Canada Post commissioned a stamp honouring Lord Selkirks Red River Settlement. Four years later, PGA Films came into being. With the cooperative movement one of its chief clients, several documentaries written and directed by Harry Gutkin dramatized the social significance of the movement. Television exploded on the scene shortly after, and PGA Films moved into animation, to produce some of the commercials the new industry demanded, again under his tireless direction. The firm is now recognized as one of the pioneers of animation in Canada.

For all his achievements in the worlds of business and the graphic arts, his true fulfilment lay in the community service that became one of the central concerns in the latter part of his life. Accepting an invitation by the newly-constituted Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada (now the Jewish Heritage Centre), he marshalled the enthusiasm of dozens of people to produce Journey Into Our Heritage, a definitive exhibit on the Western Canadian Jewish community. This exhibit, which provided him with a unique opportunity to draw on his artistic as well as his organizational and leadership skills, was a major attraction for six months in 1976 at the Museum of Man and Nature. Journey later went on display as a travelling exhibit in museums across Canada, and finally in the Museum of the Diaspora in Israel. Nineteen years of devoted service as president of the Jewish Historical Society followed. Under his leadership several exhibits on local Jewish history were mounted; other exhibits of Jewish and general interest were imported; a program of lectures was maintained; two films were produced; and a rich archive of historical documents and artifacts was amassed, which remains a continuing resource today for popular and scholarly research.

Reaching out as always to the wider community in which he lived and prospered, Harry Gutkin played a leading role in organizing the uniquely successful conference, Building Bridges, held at the University of Manitoba in August of 2001. The event, which attracted academics and lay people from across Canada and the United States, as well as Israel, brought together for the first time Jews, Mennonites, and Ukrainians, all part of Manitoba's rich immigrant heritage, to discuss their differences and their common experience. In 1997 the Government of Manitoba awarded Gutkin the Prix Manitoba for volunteer service to the community. While his professional training had centred on the graphic arts, he had become an accomplished lay historian, and his absorption in the written and spoken word had found deeply satisfying expression. He was in constant demand as a lecturer on the Jewish community, and following the success of the 1976 exhibit, he drew on its material to publish in 1980 the full-length book version of Journey Into Our Heritage, recording for posterity the people and places of the Jewish community from Manitoba to the west coast, their background and their role in the countrys development. The publishing house of Nelson Canada then commissioned The Jewish Canadians for its Multicultural Canada Series for junior high schools. Mildred Gutkin, Harry's wife, became a close collaborator in the two books which followed. The Worst of Times, The Best of Times: Growing Up in Winnipegs North End (1987) offered an incisive study of that formative enclave during the middle decades of the twentieth century; Profiles in Dissent (1997) mirrored the human face of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike in a series of biographical sketches of its leaders. Harrys collaboration with his wife on these books was a reflection of the very close links in his life between his family and his community, two aspects of the same commitment.

His grandchildren will remember him always as their beloved Zaida, who taught them to dream and inspired them to achieve, and who demonstrated by his own actions that giving back to ones community is not only a choice but a responsibility. To be a member of his family, by birth, by marriage, or simply by his willingness to "draw the circle wider," as he used to say, was a privilege. It constituted also an obligation to show the same thoughtfulness, generosity of spirit, and concern for humanity that Harry himself embodied. Long and sometimes heated discussions of issues of the day were an integral part of any Gutkin get together, and memories of the Gutkin family meals at which these issues were thrashed out will remain in the memories of his extended family, perhaps the most cherished legacies of a man who contributed so much to so many in the community at large.

A long-time member of the Manitoba Historical Society, member of the MHS Council and a Margaret McWilliams award winner, Harry Gutkin died in Winnipeg on 17 May 2004 at the age of 88 years.

His articles for the Manitoba Historical Society:

“Give us our due!” How Manitoba women won the vote
Manitoba History, Number 32, Autumn 1996


This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 26 December 2014

Memorable Manitobans

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